While witnessing the epic surrender of Confederate infantrymen at Appomattox Court House on Wednesday, April 12, 1865, Brig. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain and his 1st Division veterans likely experienced an adrenalin rush.
Realty soon intruded. By Friday the Union soldiers dined on rations “reduced to sediment in the haversacks [that] smelt of lead and gunpowder,” Chamberlain groused about the lack of food. When the 5th Corps headed east toward Burkeville* on Saturday morning and “got well stretched out on the road, we were overtaken by a pouring rain,” he groused about the weather.
And at 7:22 a.m. that Saturday, President Abraham Lincoln succumbed to an assassin’s bullet.
After shooting Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth had fled Washington on a horse left with a stable hand outside Ford’s Theater. As the injured Booth rode southeast into Maryland, his mount’s hoof beats echoed through the night — and indelibly into American history.
Unaware of the prior evening’s carnage at Ford’s Theater, the 5th Corps trudged Saturday through a steady rain that “made mulch of everything” and flooded road-side fields, according to Chamberlain “Drenched, hungry, draggled in mire, that long, lank body” of soldiers marched with a promise that rations awaited them somewhere along the Southside Railroad, which they struck “near Evergreen Station.”
Army officials added to the misery by directing the 1st Division to camp “long after dark” on flat, roadside land covered by pine trees, Chamberlain snorted. The camp site lay about 18 inches “and knee deeper than the road,” which meant that the weary soldiers would sleep on wet ground.
The promised rations did not arrive, the men could not light fires with soaked wood, and only tree roots and broken pine boughs could serve as bedding material.
The 1st Division boys were unhappy campers, at least, especially after awakening early on Sunday to a “chilly rain and lowering clouds,” Chamberlain muttered. The Union lads kindled fires with pine splinters and dead wood, cooked “their last ‘ration’ of pickled pork and gunpowder,” and set out at 6 a.m. for Farmville.
By now most civilians in the loyal states knew that an assassin had killed Lincoln. Telegraph wires had hummed steadily since late Friday; as senior Army commanders in Virginia received the official notification of Lincoln’s murder, they dispatched couriers to relay the news to division and brigade commanders.
West from Petersburg rode at least such courier on Sunday. Chamberlain could not hear the approaching hoof beats.
The clouds parted and the sun shone as the 1st Division neared Farmville on Sunday afternoon**. The lads “were welcomed by a sky clear and serene,” and “the [supply] trains were there,” Chamberlain realized.
His men cooked a belated breakfast, ate heartily, did their laundry (which also involved finding and killing lice hidden beneath collars and inside shirts and jerseys), and relaxed. “Gradually a Sabbath rest stole over the scene,” Chamberlain noticed. “All were at rest, mind and body.”
He could not hear the approaching hoof beats.
Nominally the 1st Division’s commander only for the April 12 surrender ceremonies, Chamberlain now officially commanded the division with the transfer of Brig. Gen. Joseph J. Bartlett to command the 9th Corps. At Farmville, Chamberlain established his headquarters “in the ample front yard of an old mansion of the ancient regime.”
At 4 p.m. or so, “the fine German Band of my old First Brigade” arrived at headquarters and played “choice music” that ministered “to our spiritual upgoings,” said Chamberlain, finally relaxing after a long and hard-fought Appomattox Campaign.
Suddenly the faint thud of hoof beats sounded in the distance. The hoof beats grew louder; the 1st Brigade bandsmen “were in the midst of a bright and joyous strain,” Chamberlain noted the music, “when there came galloping up the old familiar figure — the mud-splashed, grave-faced, keen-eyed cavalryman, — the message-bearer.”
Normally Chamberlain would pay no attention to a courier, “but something in the manner and look of this messenger took my attention.”
Riding to where an armed sentinel stood guard beside the divisional flags, the courier dismounted. Chamberlain watched as his chief of staff met the cavalryman, who quietly said, “I think the general would wish to treat this as personal.”
Walking to where Chamberlain stood amidst his staff, the courier “handed me a yellow tissue-paper telegram.”
Chamberlain read the message (dated April 15) that “the President died this morning. Wilkes Booth the assassin. Secretary Seward dangerously wounded. The rest of the Cabinet, General Grant, and other high officers of the Government included in the plot of destruction.”
Chamberlain thought fast. His 1st Division lads did not yet know about Lincoln; “they, for every reason, must be held in hand,” he realized.
“Put a double guard on the whole camp immediately,” Chamberlain instructed his staff. “Tell the regimental commanders to get all their men in, and allow no one to leave.” Then those officers must report to 1st Division headquarters.
Chamberlain realized the camp must be “made all secure” against “our men. They could be trusted well to bear any blow but this. Their love for the President was something marvelous. Their great loving hearts of sterling manhood seemed to have gathered him in.”
Chamberlain was afraid that “it might take but little to rouse” his men “to a frenzy of blind revenge.
“And right before them lay a city (Farmville), one of the nerve-centers of the rebellion, and an easy and inviting prey to vengeance,” he said. “Large quantities of goods, military and merchandise, had been stored there, it was said.”
And there was even “a young ladies’ seminary” in Farmville, “we were told,” Chamberlain thought.
His brigade and regimental commanders joined him, heard the news, and concurred that their men must be told. Chamberlain rode out to meet 5th Corps commander Charles Griffin, and both generals soon conferred with Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Officers soon gathered their companies and told the assembled men what had happened to Lincoln. A desire for vengeance was a common response, as soldiers’ diaries and letters indicate. But “our soldiers, like our people, wonderfully patient in severest stress, kept their self-command even now,” Chamberlain sighed in relief by late Sunday.
He thought the crisis had passed, but Chamberlain was wrong; the men of the 1st Division must mourn — and vengeance could still be theirs to wreak.
*Period diaries, letters, and reports often contained different spellings of Burkeville; “Burkesville” and “Burkittville” are among such errors.
**Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine Infantry, a part of Chamberlain’s division, remembered marching into Farmville around 9 a.m., Sunday, April 16.
Next week: Appomattox Road: Chamberlain and the 1st Division mourn Lincoln
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Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.